Where the Screening Process Might Break Down, Part 1: Applicant Tracking Systems

little guys on a computer keyboard attacking another guy. Computer error. screening.

Screening Breakdowns: When Applicant Tracking Systems attack, your candidacy might be the victim.

Where the Screening Process Might Break Down

In any screening process, there is always room for error. In fact, there is always a degree of error. This applies to machine-driven processes and human-powered ones.

Let’s talk about ways that each type of screening process might break down.

Computer Screening Software

Applicant Tracking Systems (also known as ATS) are highly sophisticated software packages that scan information in the résumé to determine the degree of match between an application and available positions. They do not simply look for keywords. Many can also read for terms in context, much like a human reader. For example, some screening programs are advanced enough to interpret how recent your experience is in a particular area, and rank you accordingly. Some can even relate relevant terms to other key terms or phrases. And they are at times a bit “picky” about how information is formatted. Some things to know about ATS that could result in your résumé being kicked out of the system, garbled, or ranked differently:

  • Keywords without context. Basically, this is what I mean when I say “buzzwords.” They are on the résumé, but it may not be clear why. Today’s ATS systems are smarter than that, and so you are less likely to be able to game the system through simply putting keywords in.
  • Graphic elements, including lines, boxes, tables, shading and non-standard fonts. These may be misunderstood by the ATS system and may result in your résumé coming back as garbled nonsense. Because of the volume of applications many employers receive, it’s not likely the recruiter will bother to follow up with a candidate whose résumé is unreadable. There are probably many qualified candidates that submitted materials that were readable.
  • Files submitted in the wrong format. Many systems ask for Word or pdf for a reason. Word (.doc) documents  are more easily read and scanned by the ATS systems. So submitting in another format might result in the résumé being flagged or ranked lower by the ATS. (for a great free online pdf converter, go here.)
  • Cutting and pasting a text version rather than uploading another acceptable format. This is simple enough: text files may come back with interesting errors in spacing or tabs. If you accidentally cut and paste HTML into a text field, your markups will result in a document coming back loaded with garbage. And even if these things don’t happen, anything you have conveyed or emphasized through formatting or design will be lost. If you are given the option, ALWAYS use the format that will convey both the content and design as you intended. These days. .pdf (portable document format, which is easily read by Adobe Acrobat Reader, Preview for Mac and many web browsers and word processors) is the standard. If given the option to upload a .pdf, do so. As such, both humans and machines will be able to read your content in context.

In my practice as a Certified Professional Resume Writer, I use a tool that emulates a typical ATS and can estimate the potential match of a resume to a job posting, by:

  • Relating keywords between the documents,
  • Estimating how recently a candidate has used a skill, and
  • Estimating the length of experience with different skills.

The tool also tells the user whether an ATS will have difficulty finding some information, which helps identify possible formatting errors that might result in the ATS having difficulty parsing out information. By using keywords that mirror and match the language of the employer, and eliminating formatting errors, a writer can make smart revisions that result in a highly targeted argument for a candidate’s potential match to an employer’s requirements.

In the next installment in this series, we’ll explore the human factor: how human errors and bias can derail your candidacy during the screening process. This post is adapted from my e-book “7 Points to a Winning Resume,” which is available here. I am developing a brief resume-writing crash course based on this e-book, and will have details about that program in a later post.

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